You need everyone on your roster to contribute in order to win in the playoffs. But there are always those one or two role players on a roster that can or should step up when the moment arises to make the outsized difference for the team.
When I say X-factors, I’m not necessarily talking about the Sebastian Blanco’s or Diego Chara’s of the world. I’m mostly looking at players who's work has maybe gone under the radar, or who have the capacity to break out and perform higher than their regular season suggests.
Read on to see who those X-factors are for Portland’s hopes of another magical playoff run.
He’s not on any of the end of the year awards ballots but Steve Clark has been one of the most impactful goalkeepers in the league this season. Impactful in the sense that he’s saved Portland’s behind on quite a few different occasions.
I’ve written before how the Timbers have outperformed their expected goals-against numbers over the course of the season and Clark is one of the biggest reasons why. He has a 78.2% save percentage on the year - the second-highest percentage in the entire league. The underlying numbers also suggest he has a strong ability to save shots that are very likely to be goals.
We all know that Portland’s backline has been... passable this season. There is a high probability they will give up a quality chance or two to Minnesota. And it will be up to Clark to be a difference-maker to keep the ball out of the net as he has all season.
Before y’all start to yell at me about Yimmi’s opposite winger - Dairon Asprilla is having himself a career year and he’s a known quantity when it comes to magical playoff moments so I don’t think he necessarily qualifies as an X-factor - we already know he is bound to do something amazing.
Yimmi on the other hand still has a bit more to prove. He only has one playoff appearance under his belt and it’s debatable whether his numbers have lived up to his Designated Player tag.
But his performance this year suggests that he could be poised to make a significant impact in the postseason. As a facilitator, he leads the team in expected assists and his ability to pressure the ball and create chances could be the difference, as it was in Portland’s second goal against Austin FC on Decision Day.
Plus, despite a “good, but not great”, goal conversion rate, he still has a nose for the goal and can pop up in good spots. It was on display in the Timbers’ second away win over LAFC from back in September when Yimmi notched the opener:
That kind of pace and that kind of impact could be very significant for a team that will look to break quickly and go direct on the counterattack on Sunday.
Paredes has very quietly turned in a series of good shifts over the course of Portland’s final few games. In a season in which a rotating cast of players started next to Diego Chara in central midfield, Paredes started the final three regular season games for the Timbers which were all comprehensive wins. He also put in some of his most consistent performances of the season and, if he can continue that good form, it could be a significant lift for the Timbers in the playoffs.
He completed 22 out of 26 passes in Portland’s 3-1 win against Real Salt Lake, showcasing that on his day he has the ability to break the game open and help progress Portland’s attack.
His strongest ability, late-arriving runs into the box, was also on full display in the Timbers’ Decision Day drubbing of Austin FC:
Against the Loons on Sunday, his ability to break lines with either his passing or dribbling and his secondary or tertiary threat in the box could be vital in breaking down Minnesota’s defensive block.
Substitutes: Santiago Moreno & Diego Valeri
Players coming off the bench always have the ability to make a game-altering impact in a playoff match and Portland has two dangerous ones on their roster, who are at opposite ends of their tenure with the Timbers.
The new boy, Santiago Moreno, is a quick and exciting player who has drawn early adulations from the fans and coaching staff alike. His pressing against Austin was caused the opposition issues and created scoring opportunities for the Timbers. He’s quick on his feet and can be a threat on the wing when he has space.
I’m not sure he’ll start (it is Dairon season) but he could be someone that creates a spark off the bench and changes a game.
Diego Valeri is another player that could provide a different kind of spark. Valeri, the new resident Salty Dog in the house, has not been up to his usual standards this season. It seems that his years are finally starting to catch up to him and he has logged far fewer minutes and starts this year than he has in seasons past.
All that being said, Valeri is one of the most veteran presences on the Timbers roster and he knows what it takes to win come playoff time. That kind of savvy could help carve out or see out a result when Portland could use a little more experienced player.
Plus, Valeri showed earlier this year that he’s still quality, he’s still able to find dangerous spots and can still be a goal threat, even in his grizzled age. Just ask LAFC:
You can totally see him scoring a goal like that in the playoffs, right?
Despite his reduced role, Valeri’s underlying per ninety minutes numbers haven’t been that much of a drop-off. He’s still averaging 0.31 expected goals per ninety and 0.27 expected assists per ninety according to FBref. Neither are that far off from his 2020 numbers so signs point to Valeri still having something left in the tank.
He appears to be entering the sunset of his career but if the Timbers need him I have a hunch that El Maestro will have something to say before this year is all done and dusted.